Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: Mockingjay

[Total Spoiler Alert]

I admit it, I went into the third book of the Hunger Games series with pretty low expectations. And yet, Mockingjay still managed to disappoint. For the vast majority of the book, I found my comments on book two still applied: Katniss, the main character, is still upside down emotionally. We continue to have her blaming herself for things that aren't her fault, and yet failing to take responsibility for things that are hers to own. Perhaps worse than that, the story continued to trickle on with hardly a plot twist in sight.

Seriously, what book has a weapon designed for the main character that's voice activated, yet doesn't use this capability in some pivotal scene that saves the day? But I digress.

Cleverly, the author has provided us with a a Hunger Games in each of the three books. In book one, Katniss pulls off the seemingly impossible: she's survived the games, and got her partner out, too. In the second book, she manages to accidentally start a revolution. This would be worth some points in my book if it wasn't followed by a temper tantrum that sucks any sense of accomplishment out of it. And in the third book, the 'games' consist of her and her team traversing the Capital's streets. Again, I give the author serious credit for fitting this in; yet this final quest appears to be completely useless. Other than killing off some characters and gently moving the story line along, I fail to see any advantage she gained through this exercise.

So yeah, I was unimpressed.

But then, in the final pages of the book, Katniss crossed the line from petulant teenager into sociopath territory. With her killing of president Coin and her recommending of a hunger games for the Capital, she seems to have fully embraced the evil that she was fighting. Perhaps I misheard these critical pages and am taking away the wrong impression. But seriously, how could she be so dense as to not realize her behavior is exactly that of the tyrant was was supposed to be executing?

There was one highlight of the book, though. The audio version contains a short interview with the author at the end of the book, and I found it quite fascinating. The author discusses her inspiration and remarks that as a TV writer she could totally appreciate the game-maker side of the equation. Perhaps the main character in the book isn't Katniss afterall, but the games itself? I'm probably too stuck in Katniss's behavior, though in my defense, so much of the book is spent on her emotional baggage, it's hard not to get frustrated with it. Especially when she appears to be the only character who doesn't grow. Her sister, her mother, her fellow victors; they all evolve into better versions of themselves. And yet Katniss remains locked in a state that seems to force her into bad decisions.

When the Hunger Games first came out, there was plenty of concern that the content was just not kid appropriate. How could a book that has kids killing kids be for kids? And yet, immediately, it's not the themes that bother me. No, it's the ridiculous main character. If your child is aching to read this series, by all means, let them. But you best read along with them and plan to have some frank discussions about why the main character's behavior is so wrong, so often.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Three Ridges Hike: Wet, Yet Wonderful

This past weekend we tackled the Three Ridges Hike; that's a 14 mile circuit including panoramic views, lovely mountain streams, demanding climbs and peaceful campsites. More than that, it proved that you simply can't will good weather to happen by ignoring the forecast.

As the day to leave for the hike approached, Shira kept telling me the forecast was getting rainier and colder. By the time we left, they promised 100% chance of rain on Saturday. I simply ignored these warnings, and told Shira we should go for it anyway. To her credit, she didn't believe me for a minute, yet still persevered and tackled the trip with me.

We arrived at the trail head at 4pm with heavy fog and a cold rain. These conditions, with varying amount of rain, would remain exactly the same for the next 24 hours. But we pressed. Thankfully, at the last moment I decided to take my Frogg Toggs jacket along with my wind-resistant Ghost Whisperer Anorack. I'm sure that lightweight windbreaker would have been soaked through and nearly useless in minutes. The Frogg Toggs held up great and was the perfect companion for this cold and rainy weather.

The hike starts with about a mile climb, and then a mile downhill, where you arrive at an AT shelter. That's where we spent our first night. Shira fully setup the tent and camp while I set to work trying to start a fire. This was tricky business, because (a) everything was wet and (b) the area was an established campsite so it was picked pretty clean of down wood. Ultimately, what saved the day was the somewhat random discovery of some punk wood that I kicked free from the underside of a dead tree. I'd only heard/seen YouTube videos discussing punk wood. I managed to get it lit using my lighter, and then it just slowly burned away, forming an ember that wouldn't go out. It was simply bushcraft magic at its best. Using other bits of wood I'd collected, I slowly coaxed a flame from the ember, and from there we had fire. On the surface, it was a pretty tame fire; but for myself, it was perhaps the ultimate outdoor accomplishment: fire from wet wood, started and kept alive through a gentle rain. Amazing.

Luckily, while I was playing with the fire, Shira managed to fully get our tent up and our gear inside and dry. It would rain all night, and her tent setup job worked perfectly. We were dry and warm the whole time.

Man those hotdogs we cooked the first night were tasty!

When we awoke on Saturday, the weather looked like it was going to continue to do what it had done all night: be cold and rainy. So we made the call: rather than do the 12 miles head of us over two days, we'd do it in one. We only had to tear down camp and get on our way.

Anyone who knows me, knows I'm pretty particular about my gear and always looking to optimize it. So it would probably come as a shock to know that I'm still using the same 4 Man Timberline Tent that I grew up with in Scouts. Surely there are far lighter alternatives out there? Indeed, there are. And every backpacking trip begins the same way, with me searching for alternatives and presenting them to Shira. Who always shoots them down. What can I say, she likes the spacious Timberline tent. And at just under 8lbs, it's only a couple pounds heavier than a 3 man, $300 tent. $300 for two pounds is a tough pill to swallow.

And then you have trips like this one where it sure is nice having a huge and sturdy shelter to retreat to in the cold and rain. And I learned a new trick I'd never attempted before: you can take down the tent while leaving the polls and fly up. This allowed me to pack up the mostly dry tent, while still having the soaking wet fly protect us. The Timberline poles + rainfly actually made for a pretty nifty shelter, and I could see using that in a context that called for quick sun protection.

Slowly but surely, I'm accepting the Timberline as my tent of choice for backpacking with the wife.

The 12 miles we tackled Saturday were supposed to contain quite a few grueling ups and downs. And it provided these in a big way. We found overlooks, but all we could see from them was a sheet of white. Much of the hike was done in fog, which was actually pretty surreal. Given all the ups and downs, the cool temperatures actually made hiking more enjoyable. I can't imagine how much work this hike would be in the hot, humid summer.

At about 5 miles into our hike we arrived at the shelter where we originally planned to spend the night. The scene was pretty idyllic, and if it hadn't been for the wet weather and promise of more wet weather, it would have been the ideal place to setup camp. We pushed on.

More, ups, more downs, some quick scrambles and beautiful waterfalls. There were a series of, what appeared to be, swimming holes which in 55°F weather looked pretty but far from tempting. In the summer, I bet they are perfect spot to take a cooling off dip.

And after a day of hiking, we arrived back at the AT shelter where we had spent the night. As we stopped to heat up some food for dinner, we got to talking with the hikers that were hunkered down in the shelter. Two of them were doing half-through hikes, going from Harper's Ferry to Georgia, and another hiker was tackling the full AT. After dinner, as we packed up our gear to head out, I asked if the thru-hikers wanted any of the extra food we had. We weren't staying the second night as planned, and there was no need for me to carry it out. They looked at me as though I had two heads and was offering them a winning lottery ticket. Uh yeah, we'll take whatever you got. And so between the 3 guys we divvied up our various odds and ends, including couscous, peanut butter and instant oatmeal. One guy was especially appreciative when he found the green tea in with the oatmeal. It was so classic, and was the least we could do to help these guys tackle their quest.

A little over an hour later we were back at our car. It was still raining. The fog still hadn't cleared. How nice of Mother-Nature to make it cold and wet to the end.

I kept telling Shira: see, if you can backpack in these conditions, you can backpack in any conditions. She didn't complain once the whole trip, even though it worked out exactly as she told me it would. Now that we've seen the terrain and what this hike has to offer, I can't wait to get back on a sunny day when we can actually see the vistas. But even in the cold and wet, it was still a top notch trip.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rule Number One for a Good Business

Some time ago I stumbled on one of Wood Trekker's older posts: Is it Wrong to Profit From Your Hobby? and found it thought provoking. The premise of the article is that some people's attempts to monetize their hobby ends up doing far more harm than good. My off the cuff reaction was something along the lines of: well, if you want to make a *good* business out of your hobby, go for it, but if it's going to be a crappy one, forget about it.

Which begs the question: what's a good business?.

After a number of evening jogs spent rolling this question around in head, I've come the following conclusion:

A good business must do at least one thing: exceed expectations.

Do that and you're off and running. Fail at that, and forget about it. Sure, it might be helpful to set expectations, but that's not really required; people will bring their own.

Consider a lemonade stand strategically placed along a bike trail on a hot day. What's the expectations? The lemonade should be cold and drinkable. Does matter if it's created from a mix that's mainly sugar? Not at all.

Now suppose you want to sell lemonade at your high-end artisan restaurant, with the promise of all organic ingredients and a high price tag to match. Now the expectations have clicked up quite a few notches: for $9.50, this better be the best tasting lemonade I've ever consumed.

Both businesses and products can work. Both can fail. It's all about exceeding the customer's expectations.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Galaxy Note5 - Don't Call It a Phablet

I've now had my Galaxy Note5 for a little over a week and I'm ready to render a verdict: Love It.

Specifically: love the screen size and that I now have numeric row on the standard on-screen keyboard; love that it has 4GB(!!) of RAM to make for a snappy UI; love the Pro camera mode; love that they moved the speaker from the back of the device to the bottom; love the improved fingerprint scanner which is just about perfect; love the slick integration with the S-Pen, not sure how much I'll use it, but it's definitely got potential; love the super fast start-up of the camera (hit the home button twice, wait 2 seconds and you're ready to go). See a theme here?

What I'd change: not a whole lot. I truly miss the waterproof capability provided by the S5 and I don't get the fascination with the high end materials. What's the first thing I did with my sexy new metal and glass phone? Put it in a plastic case. It now looks exactly the same as every other phone in that model of case.

As a geek, I should be outraged that Samsung ditched the removable battery and SD card. In practice, it doesn't really matter. I now rely on an external battery for recharging throughout the day; and the SD card on my Galaxy S5 didn't save me from running out of space. As long as the majority of Android apps write their data to the internal device memory, the SD card is going to remain largely unimportant.

The biggest challenge for me and the Note 5 is that I'm no longer wearing it on my hip. That was a condition of purchase: I had to retire the belt clip style case that I've depended on since my first cell phone. Carrying a gigantic phone on my belt was just too much for Shira to handle. Shira picked me up a handsome Spigen Armor Case which does its job quite well, including a very functional built in kickstand. So far, I've carried the phone in my cargo shorts pockets. With Fall officially upon is, I'm going to have to figure out a jeans solution sooner than later. One word: murse. Anyways, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Bottom line: the Galaxy Note 5 feels like a true upgrade from the S5 in every way. It's bigger, faster and just all around better. It's exactly what a phone upgrade should be. (Compare that to the S6 which would have been faster and had more memory, but would have been essentially the same form factor. Feh, who want's that?).

Oh, and stop calling it a phablet. It's just a phone. Just because your phone is tiny next to my phone, that's not my phone's fault.

Special thanks to Michael Fisher of pocketnow.com fame who helped me figure out the Note5 was going to be the ideal fit for me. (Sure, Pocketnow.com is a client of mine, but providing me with personalized phone shopping advice is hardly in the contract.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Always on Guard

That's a close up of one of the lions that guard the Netherlands Carillon. I snapped the picture while running by during an especially soggy run.

Relevant to tonight is this snippet from a 1952 speech talking about the the small bells that would be included in the Carillon:

"To achieve real harmony, justice should be done also to the small and tiny voices, which are not supported by the might of their weight. Mankind could learn from this. So many voices in our troubled world are still unheard. Let that be an incentive for all of us when we hear the bells ringing."

Learn more here. And here's to hearing those small and tiny voices!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sligo Creek Trail - From Falafel to Folk Music and Back

Yesterday we ventured into the Neutral Zone Maryland for a day of biking, eating and fun with one of Shira's friends and were rewarded with the perfect day. We biked most of the Sligo Creek Trail, which is a 10 mile stretch of hard surface trail comparable to the WO&D and other high quality trails in the area. The trail runs along Sligo Creek, which in turn runs through some wonderful natural terrain.

We saw a number of deer (probably 10 in all) grazing along the trail. More impressive, a large buck jumped across the trail right in front of Shira as she peddling full speed. It was an amazing moment, but happened way to fast for me to even consider getting a photo. It's probably one of the most remarkable sights we've ever seen while biking.

Had we just gone for a late Summer bike ride, that would have been enough. But wait, there's more! We made our way to Max's Kosher Cafe to pick up falafel and shawarma and then biked over to Wheaton Regional Park. The park not only has a carousel and train for kids to ride, but also an especially impressive playground setup. I see a trip here with nieces and nephew in our future.

After a delicious lunch we made our way to the Takoma Park Folk Festival, where we spread out on a blanket listening to folks music. It was the perfect compliment to biking around the area. Oh, and we found Shira's friend's favorite soap seller in the craft vendor area. Even I had to be impressed with all the different varieties (and clever uses for said varieties) that she offers.

Finally, as we exited the Sligo Creek Trail I noticed a fenced off area a few paces away. Naturally, I had to hold up our progress and check it out. Turns out, I discovered the Takoma Park Presidents Tree, or more accurately, the marker to the tree. The tree itself died in the early 1990's and was finally blown over in 1997. The best photo I was able to dig up of the tree can be found here, and it's pretty unremarkable. It just looks like a tree covered in graffiti. The narrative describing the tree is far more interesting. To think that in 1997 you could have see the markings of a civil war era farmer are pretty impressive.

And of course, here are some photos. If you're a biker, definitely add the Sligo Trail to your TODO list.

View Photos

Friday, September 18, 2015

OK Google, You've Impressed Me

Google's voice automation is definitely improving. Without touching my phone, I was able to say: OK Google ... play some chill music. I was impressed when my device responded, "OK" and not only opened up a music player but took me to a song that started playing. Not too shabby.

There was only one minor glitch. It started to play this song:

That's not exactly the kind of chill music I had in mind. I was hoping for something along these lines. Still, it's impressive how far we've come.

Perhaps I should be thankful that Google can't yet read my mind to know my musical tastes. Though, I'm sure that's coming next quarter.

Linux on your Android phone, easier and more powerful than you think

I had a really good thing going with Terminal IDE on my Android phone. It gave me a basic Unix Environment, which when combined with a Bluetooth keyboard, made accomplishing certain dev tasks a breeze.

Then I got upgraded to Android 5.x and the party stopped. TerminalIDE was rendered useless through the OS change.

A week back I picked up a new phone, a Galaxy Note 5. I hope to do a full review once I've logged sufficient hours. As this was a new phone, I figured I should check on Terminal IDE, maybe there was a work around. Alas, still broken. But it did lead me to GNURoot which promised an install of Linux without rooting your phone. And from there, I made my way to the newer GNURoot Debian.

I kicked off the app and blindly followed the prompts. Sure, I'll make a rootfs. Whatever. Lo and behold, when it was all said and done I was dropped at a bash prompt.

The most basic commands (ls, for example) worked. But anything slightly trickier (vi or ping) came back with a command not found. Was this some sort of toy system? Not at all. I just wasn't thinking big enough. I typed:

  apt-get install vim less

and the result was:

To my amazement, apt-get did its thing and when I was done, I had vim and less at my disposal!

I grabbed more of my favorite utilities: ssh, netcat, curl and subversion. For bonus points I grabbed scsh, the Scheme Shell. Everything pulled down just fine and more importantly, appeared to run just fine:

This isn't like having a Unix Environment on my phone, this is a Unix Environment on my phone.

And I'm apparently still thinking small, folks have gotten LibreOffice and other GUI apps running in this non-root environment. Amazing.

The system isn't without it's glitches. I'm not able to make certain soft links like I'd hoped. And while you can install ping, you don't have the needed permissions to run it. But still, these are minor compared to what actually works and how little effort went into setting this up.

I've not got a shiny new power tool in the toolbox, and boy is it awesome! Let's hope I don't lose a virtual arm to it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Will it Grow: Wildflower Seed Mix

I've been wanting to try planing a wildflower seed mix for a while. It has the promise of being my kind of gardening: super simple to do (rough up ground; toss seed on ground; smoosh seed into ground; done), yet with the possibility of truly interesting results. So I ordered up a bag of Wildflower Seeds from The Dirty Gardener, mainly because it got solid reviews on Amazon.

I planted the seeds last Sunday, which is pretty much the exact wrong time to plant them. I'm fairly certain from my research that I've either seeded too late in the growing season (will the perennials get any time to establish roots?) or too early (better to start them after the first frost, then let them chill over the winter, and be ready for spring). But in the spirit of experimentation I figured it wouldn't hurt to toss some seed onto the ground and see what happens.

So that's what I did.

Now we play the waiting game see if anything grows.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Mystery of DC's Voluptuous Nymph

We're strolling through DC after a delicious dinner at Rasika and come across this fountain next to the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces:

(I didn't have my camera or cell phone, so this stock photo will have to do.)

It was dark when we saw the monument, so we missed any inscription on it. I had to depend on Google to unravel the mystery of why there was a naked chick statue outside the US Court of Appeals.

Here's the long (and well written) version of the story. The short version is that the statue isn't directly related to the Court of Appeals, but stands near Judiciary Square. The monument itself is in memory of Joseph James Darlington, apparently a lawyer and leader in the local DC law community. In 1920, his buddies got together and had the monument commissioned.

Nudity in monuments and such isn't exactly rare in DC. Heck, here's a top 10 list of sites that will appeal to your inner teenage boy. And the nudity in the Darlington monument was defended thusly: "[the statue] was 'direct from the hand of God instead of from the hands of a dressmaker," which is pretty clever if you ask me. None the less, our Puritan roots do show, as many folks aren't exactly comfortable with having statue of a nymph just lounging around. (In 1988, the Chicago Tribune described the statue as a "voluptuous nymph" - hence this blog post's title.)

Carl Paul Jennewein, the creator of the Darlington monument also created the Spirt of Justice which sits in the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building. The Spirit of Justice is apparently so focused on justice that she didn't realize her right boob is hanging out for all to see. This dash of nudity triggered the purchase of $8,000 worth drapes to cover said statue. As you probably guessed, the statue was covered during a Republican term of office, the theory being that a naked chick wasn't really the ideal background when the Attorney General was addressing the country. And yes, the drapes came down when John Ashcroft was replaced by Alberto Gonzales. But, the controversy isn't over, Obama apparently put the curtains back up in 2014. Our squeamishness with nudity is hardly limited to one political party.

Mystery solved.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hand Picked Sweetness

In just a few hours, it will be Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (5776, to be exact). And to bring the holiday in right, we continued a tradition we started a few years back of picking fresh apples for the holiday. This year we did our picking at the Homestead Farm in Maryland, which had an impressive selection of apple varieties. We picked Fuji, Red Delicious, Empire and Crimsoncrisp. And supplies (except for Crimsoncrips) were quite plentiful. We'll almost certainly be going back next year!

They also had a plot of Zinnias that you could purchase fresh cut flowers from. That made for a great spot for me to shoot pictures while Shira did the actual work of picking and schlepping apples.

Here's to a sweet, healthy and prosperous new year! May you have plenty of both kinds of sweetness this year!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Stop. Motion. Movies. So. Fun. So. Easy. So. Do. It.

I left our visit to the Museum of the Moving Image with a new found respect for the stop motion movie. I'd always imagined they'd be a pain to create, but after playing with the simple setup the museum offered, I realized that a little creativity and patience goes an awful long way. More than that, there's a certain addictive quality to creating them. You quickly realize that all you need is a few props and a storyline, and you've got yourself the makings of a film.

I was curious what it would take to recreate the Museum's setup at home. Of course, There's an App For That, so you need little more than a smart phone and your imagination to get started.

First off, I found PicPac, which combines photos you take into movies. Sure the free version of the app shows ads and limits you to low quality videos, but the results are still impressive. Snap a bunch of photos, select the frames you want to be in your movie, and Bam! it'll generate a video file for you. I've played with this a bit, but don't yet have any examples to share.

I need to bust out some Lego characters and start creating. At some point I'll probably enhance the setup by spending a few bucks on a tripod mount and remote shutter release. But even without the additional hardware PicPac is a winner.

Another fun option in the Stop Motion Animation world: FlipaClip. FlipaClip let's you draw old school flip books on your mobile device. Like PicPac, it's quite a bit of fun and a complete solution. Here's an example I whipped up in a few minutes:

The app is free, and while there's probably a reason to buy the paid version of the app, it wasn't immediately necessary. The user experience is truly top notch, so I could definitely see spending a few bucks on the pro version.

Don't think you have the drawing skills for this app? Nonesense. Hit the library and rent an Ed Emberley book. His Make a World book is perfect for powering just about any city scene you can imagine.

So next time you've got a long wait in the doctor's office, or a rainy day with the kids, put the time to work making a masterpiece. You've already got the studio, talent and location at your fingertips. What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Review: Catching Fire

It's not unusual for me to read the first book in the series, love it, and stop there. Books like The Traveler and Dune struck me as so powerful, I just can't imagine future books being better than the first. (And I was right about The Traveler, the second and third books were pretty blah). So I was actually quite content to leave the Hunger Game Series where I had left it: as being a fun read, that pretty much blew me away.

Alas, I couldn't leave well enough alone. Just the other day, I finished listening to Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games series.

On one hand, it is true that I for the most part devoured the book, listening to it whenever I had a few free moments. And there were a couple moments in the book that got me rooting for the characters, and left me impressed with their problem solving skills. But overall, the book was nowhere near as solid as the first one.

For one thing, most of the book felt like a meandering search for a plot. And, spoiler alert, when we did arrive at some action that the author could bite into, it was sort of a watered down version of the first book. And for another thing, I've pretty much fallen out of like with the main character, Katniss. In book one she struck me as clever, inventive, courageous and the kind of person I could learn a thing or two from. Certainly the kind of person I'd want my hypothetical daughter to emulate. In book two, she strikes me as far less mature, and always seems a few steps behind those around her, rather than a few steps ahead. If book one contained a teenage love story intermixed with a distopian thriller, book two is sort of the sulky teenager mixed with the same distopian thriller. It just didn't do it for me.

A few key points do strike me: First, it doesn't surprise me that the second book in a trilogy would be more of a bridge to the third book, rather than intended to stand on its own. That's probably just the reality of trilogies. And second, Katniss is supposed to be teenager, so I can hardly fault the author for writing her as one. And it's true, given her situation she's probably more than entitled to be angry at the world and those around her. (Though, most of the other characters seem to be far more self aware than her.) My guess is, the author feels that her target audience is probably pissed at the world too, and so why shouldn't Katniss be right along with them. This is probably a case where I part ways with what the young adult crowd is after. I certainly wouldn't want that hypothetical daughter of mine to be following example of Book Two Katniss,

At the end of the day, the book wasn't awful. I just didn't live up to the first book in the series. I do hope that Katniss comes around in the third book, and that she doesn't continue her slide into teenage-boneheadedness. All I know is, by listening to book two I'm committed. So book three, here I come!

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Sony A6000 Mirrorless Camera - To Buy, or Not To Buy?

To spice things up for shooting photos at the US Open, I decided to rent a totally different camera setup than I usually use. I went with a Sony A6000 mirrorless camera and a 18-200mm Lens, all rented through BorrowLenses.com. I couldn't be happier with the deal: for about $200 I got to try $2,000 worth of equipment for a week. It was a nice splurge and I'd use the service again if I had the necessity.

Clearly, one of the goals of the rental was to do an extended field test to see if was time to replace my Canon t3i with a shiny new camera. Here are the results of that little test:

3 Reasons I Must Buy This Camera Today

1. Speed. Everything about the A6000 seems faster than my t3i. The 11 frames per second of shooting power blows away my t3i's 3 frames per second. The focusing is far faster; heck some say it's the fastest available on any camera (or more likely, was the fastest option available). Even reviewing photos in the camera is faster, with none of the lag the t3i has when you hit the next and previous buttons.

2. The viewfinder shows you what the picture is going to look like. I didn't even know I needed this feature, or that this was a feature. And then I read this comment:

This is a TRUE live view camera. That means it has the ability to show you the shot, including white balance and exposure BEFORE you take it….it can do this INSIDE the EVF, which makes it, for creative shooters, INFINITELY better than any SLR of any brand.

This only works if the Viewfinder is set to MANUAL. And if you shoot on “aperture priority,” you’ve completely missed the most valuable feature on this camera.

Turn your viewfinder to MANUAL, set your ISO, white balance and aperture, and finally adjust your exposure with the shutter speed. SEE the changes to exposure in REAL TIME, not just helping you set exposure, but leading you to compositions and lighting decisions you would have missed with ANY SLR.

And it's true: switch to manual mode and peer through the viewfinder and you see what the photo on the current settings will produce. As you fiddle with the shutter speed and aperture, the image changes. When you hit the shutter button, what you capture is what you were seeing. The comment is incorrect though, aperture priority doesn't negate this feature. Selecting different aperture values shows you the corresponding change in depth of field. It's all pretty dang amazing. And, no surprise, it's fast.

Thing is, this is more than a neat parlor trick. I've lost a number of really important photos due to nudging the mode dial of my camera from AV to M. So here I am, shooting away on AV mode as I expect and then randomly, I end up on M mode. I keep shooting away, except the settings are no longer even close to relevant. And when I finally go back to review the photos, I'm devastated to learn that I've been shooting on totally invalid settings for the last X number of shots.

With the a6000, this simply isn't possible. Switching to manual mode by accident would show you an incorrectly exposed image in the viewfinder.

3. The physical controls are a pleasure to use. The t3i has a single dial which can be used for controlling shutter speed or aperture. And it works. But the a6000 has multiple dials along with multiple buttons waiting for you to customize them. With little effort, I was able to setup the camera in a way that was fast and easy to use.

3 Reasons Why I Should Hold Off on Buying the a6000

1. Size and weight. Yes, the camera is definitely more compact than my t3i. But by adding the relatively bulky 18-200mm lens, there's only negligible size and weight savings. The a6000 with a compact prime lens is probably a joy to carry around, but realistically, if I'm bringing a real camera I want real focal length choices. That means bringing something telephoto along, which means adding bulk. My options remain unchanged: shoot with my cell phone and have no extra bulk; or bring a camera body and a couple of lenses, and have vastly more shooting options. The a6000 doesn't change this equation in a meaningful way.

2. Features. Man, the a6000 does it all! HDR shots, Panoramic shots, color effects, WiFi and my favorites: intelligent auto and superior auto (for when intelligent just isn't superior enough!). Heck, it even runs apps (whatever those are). I like an expert feature as much as, if not more so, than the next guy. But I've had enough cameras to know that the vast majority of these features will go unused. At the end of the day, the camera needs to shoot aperture priority mode well, and probably not a whole lot more.

3. Last year's photos were better. This one hurts on a number of levels. When I look at last year's photos of the US Open and this year's photos, I like the last year's better. I know it's not truly a fair comparison: the lighting was different, I was sitting in different locations, I was going after different shots. But still, the t3i snapped off some really sharp photos, and many of this year's shots were just OK.

This probably speaks less to the a6000 and more to my skills (or lack there of), as well the limitations of any camera. I just know that for all the game changing features of the a6000, none of them really produced photos that I wasn't able to capture with my t3i.

So do I need to drop everything and buy a Sony a6000 today? Alas, no. But it did open my eyes to a world out there that's pretty dang amazing.

Monday, September 07, 2015

A Little Non-Tennis in New York

After days and days of tennis it was a real treat to see a little bit of New York and catch up with friends and family. We started the day by taking in the Museum of the Moving Image with our friends and their kids.

The museum opens with an extensive exhibit titled How Cats Took Over The Internet, which was both hilarious and informative and sets the tone nicely for the rest of the museum. The museum turned out to be a fun collection of "artifacts," like a display of Star Wars figures that had me ticking off which ones I had fond memories of playing with, as well as interactive displays. The kids did amazing at creating stop-motion movies, so much so that I'm going to have to try this with the next set of kids we have visiting our home.

Here's a short that Shira and I created. Emphasis on the short part, unlike the kids, we didn't realize that the movie could be as many frames as we wanted it to be:

Actually, all of the interactive displays were among the best I've seen in any museum, and really held all of our attention.

After the museum, we made our way to Jersey to see our Cousins and their kids, getting to meet their littlest for the first time. Soooooooo cute! We ate froyo, schmoozed and walked along the waterfront; it was the perfect way to close out this amazing little adventure.

View Photos

US Open 2015 - Best Of Edition

So. Much. Tennis. That's how I feel after making it through two and a half days worth of the US Open. Last year we did Friday and Saturday at the Open, and this year we did the same, with matches on Thursday night as a bonus. While I tend to tire of sitting and watching tennis sooner than Shira, even I have to admit, we had a pretty amazing time. Here are some Best Of moments from the time we were there:
  • Best Point: The wrap-around-the-net-shot by Gasquet, in the Gasquet vs. Tomic match, in the second set. Here's video of the point: Note the fist-bump between the two after the point finished.
  • Best Match: No doubt, it was the Nadal vs. Fognini match. To see the staggeringly unlikely comeback of Fognini was just too amazing. The match ended around 1:30am. The stat I found most remarkable is this one:
    Nadal had a 151-0 record when he won the first two sets of any best-of-five match.
    Oh yeah, in the 5th set there were 7 consecutive breaks of serve, which like the rest of the match, was remarkable. That's the thing about sitting down to these early matches in the Open: you just never know what the outcome may be.
  • Best display of player frustration: Also from the Nadal vs. Fognini match, was Fognini elegantly bouncing his racket off the ground, as captured here. He then continued to play with said racket. Runner up: watching Marin Cilic smash his racket just a few feet from us. Must have felt great.
  • Best Comeback: that would belong to Serena Williams in the Williams vs. Mattek-Sands match. She lost the first set and was down in the second set, and then came roaring (in many shots, literally so) back to crush Mattek-Sands with a 6-0 third set.
  • Best Moment: this one is captured by these two photos: photo 1 and photo 2. At the same time Novak Djokovic was on court, Federer, Serena and Nadal were practicing on the courts directly behind the stadium. To see all 4 of these greats at one time and place was really something special.
  • Best Shirt Change: Ahhh, the shirt change. One of Tennis's traditions that the ladies can fully get behind. The winner for this one though, has to go to Caroline Wozniacki in the Wozniacki vs. Cetkovska match. Somehow she managed to change her outfit on center court without showing the least bit of skin. Very impressive. The runner up for this has to go to Lukas Rosol in the Rosol vs. Kohlschreiber match. Let's just say he's a remarkably fit man, and Shira didn't mind sitting a few rows back from him as he did a shirt change.
  • Best First Impression: this one goes to the Rosol vs. Kohlschreiber match, and not just for the shirt change mentioned above. We walked through the US Open gates, and turned right into the first court with with a match on it. And there we sat, as these guys played professional grade tennis with us just a few feet away from them. Tennis courts are just so small, and the first week of the Open gives you a chance to see amazing players up close and personal.
  • Best Food: The US Open does try to provide a fairly large number of food options, and they mostly succeed. Though the best thing I ate while I was there was the Ben and Jerry's Half Baked Ice Cream Bar. So delicious. Runner up: anything from the Kosher Grill, which gave me a chance to clog my arteries like the rest of the tennis fans on the grounds.
  • Best Surprise: when our tickets arrived, Shira learned that we had tickets to the Hospitality Breakfast. We had no idea what this was, but figured we should seek it out. When we finally found the breakfast, we were shocked to discover it was an intimate, high quality affair. We're talking omelet stations and gourmet donuts. As if the food weren't enough, we also had a chance to meet and hear Tracy Austin speak, who at 16 became the youngest winner of the US Open. She still holds this distinction.
All in all it was great, and occasionally mind numbing, time. But what an opportunity! And of course, I've got photos! On Friday, I shot well over 2,000 photos. Luckily, I've narrowed it down to just the essentials. Enjoy!

View Photos: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Thursday, September 03, 2015

DC Quiz: Name That Monument

OK fellow DMV'ers, what is this a monument to, and where it is located?

The answer is found here with more info here.

Absolutely fascinating!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

You Might Be a Hacker If ...

Take a moment and drag This Link into the bookmark toolbar on your browser. And next time you have a few minutes to kill, click it. The result will be a Random Reddit. Reddit is a well known user submitted content site. Anyone can submit articles, which the world can then vote on. The ones that get the most votes are towards the top of the list. It always makes for interesting reading. But where it gets especially useful is that different subreddits can be created. Want to talk about Canon cameras or cooking or beagles? There's a reddit community for that, where content is submitted and ranked. Fun stuff.

And the Random Reddit link does what you think it does: sends you to a random community. I've just hit it 5 times and was taken to: r/comiccon - news about comic conventions, /r/porterrobinson - Porter Robinson, whoever that is, /r/assassinscreed - the Assassins Creed fan community, /r/badlinguistics - The repository for all the worst linguistics-related content and /r/germany - English language content related to Germany. You get the idea.

Click on the link enough times and you'll find one that's worth your time. And today's Random Reddit with your time: Red Neck Engineering. Redneck Engineering can be summed up in one sentence:

You know it when you see it.

Redneck Engineering covers all disciplines, including: plumbing, landscaping, boat building, car repair, HVAC, bike repair, mixology, photography and far more. Expect to see heavy use of duct tape and bungee cords. And don't be surprised if some of the "solutions" look like they might be dangerous. That's only because you're not a trained Redneck Engineer; to those versed in the science and art of said subject, there's nothing to be worried about.

All joking aside, /r/redneckengineering is packed full of interesting hacks and improvisations. I tip my hat to any and all who are willing to trade a bit of looks for a functional and field expedient solution. Even these guys.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

You Didn't and You Probably Couldn't - Appreciating "Trivial" Art

This is useful: I Could Do That, a brief video explaining the why and how of appreciating art that looks, well, trivial to make. I've certainly been guilty of shaking my head and thinking "really, this is art?" when walking through a modern art exhibit. In just under 6 minutes, this video makes a compelling case for seeing this art in a different light. This should be required watching before stepping into nearly any art gallery, and I plan to do just this before my next museum trip.

This notion of "I Could Do That" isn't limited to whacky art projects. As humans, one of our gifts is the ability to consolidate complexity. You may describe your commute to work as: walk to car, get in, start the car, turn left out of the driveway, etc. But truly, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny operations that have to happen for this sequence to occur. Heck, it takes the coordination of 200 muscles for the "simple" act of walking. So when we see someone cook a gourmet meal, code an app, or act out a scene, we're able to compact these tasks into simple sequences. But try to do them ourselves? Well, you quickly appreciate just how tricky these tasks can be.

That's a very long winded way of saying: think you could trivially recreate that splotch of paint on a canvas? That's just your brain fooling you; try it and you'll see that even this is harder than it looks.

Via: Richard's Notes

The Hotel Kitchen Kit, v1.0

For most trips, I don't bother to bring any special cooking tools. We do, however, make it a priority to visit a supermarket as one of our first destinations in a new location. I walk in with this document at the ready, which reminds me of some basic essentials to pick up.

Every once in a while, though, I'll find myself needing to do a larger amount of hotel cooking. And when that happens, you won't be shocked to learn, I've got a kit ready to go. Here's what's inside of it.

First, here's the setup all packed up:

And here it is unpacked:

What's in the kit:

  • Fozzil's Solo Pack - Fozzil's consists of 3 sheets of heavy duty plastic that contain strategically located snaps and folds. When you follow the instructions, you can quickly assemble a bowl, cup, and plate. It does include a spoon, though I've never used it, so I'm not sure how much mileage you'll get from it. I've used the Fozzils in both a camping and hotel context, and does fine in both scenarios. I really like how functional each item is, with each piece being a reasonable size. I've never had the snaps fail. When unsnapped and flattened, they can be used as a cutting board or prep area. Even the container they come in has been useful: as you can see, the rest of the "kitchen" packs inside of it, and it too can serve as a cutting board. While Fozzil's may not be the smallest packing option available, it is flat, durable, lightweight and easy to clean. Definitely hard to beat.
  • Light My Fire Spork - What can I say? It's a mighty fine eating implement, lightweight, easy to clean and won't break the bank when you lose one.
  • Japanese Paring Knife - I have no special attachment to this knife, as I recently added to the kit. In the past I had a folding ceramic knife, which did well until I cracked the plastic handle. The Japanese Paring knife seems like it will do well: it's compact enough to fit in the kit, yet large enough to have lots of uses. It comes with its own scabbard, which is pretty essential. It is also dirt cheap and gets solid Amazon reviews.
  • Small bag of condiments - Yes, you can buy these online, but it's more fun to randomly collect them. Start now and just keep an eye out for extra packets you can "borrow" next time you're at a fast food spot. The salt and pepper is especially useful.
  • Bottle of olive oil - this is an empty 5 Hour Energy bottle and does work well. It's never leaked on me and it's a good size. The big catch is that the 5 Hour Energy drink is pretty pungent stuff, and it leaves an odor in the bottle. I wouldn't want to use the bottle to carry fine olive oil, but as a supply of basic cooking olive oil, it works well.
  • A sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil - Aluminum foil is lightweight and packs well in this flat setup, so why not bring some along? It's useful for providing a clean prep area, wrapping up left-overs and lots of other uses. I've used the foil as an improvised lid for the Fozzil containers, trapping the heat inside. The foil combined with a hotel towel wrapped around the container allows food to continue to cook (mmmmm, melty cheese) after it's out of the microwave.
  • Ziplock Zip 'n Steam bags - While the Fozzil containers are great for food prep and using as dishes, they really aren't designed for cooking. They can be heated up to 110°C, but aren't truly microwave safe. This means that if I've got a microwave in the hotel room, I don't really have a container for cooking in it. Enter the Ziplock Steamer Bags. These bags are designed to be microwaved, and serve as a super compact cooking vessel. They get rave reviews on Amazon, and can apparently be used to make whole meals (see: here and here). I've had success cooking eggs in them, which is a common and easy dish to make. Considering how inexpensive they are, how they fold flat and are multi-use, you really can't go wrong with them.

So there you have it, a lightweight, multipurpose kit for turning a hotel room into a functional kitchen. As for what to cook, Google is your friend there. As is Buzzfeed. Heck, many raw food recipes should work, as they don't require cooking. But ultimately, I'm still figuring this part out. For now, my "meals" tend to be either basic and functional, or creative and disastrous. But either way, I end up fed.

Have any hotel cooking suggestions? Do share in the comments!

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